We're in for a wild ride. Exponentially accelerating technological, cultural, and socioeconomic evolution means that every year will see more developments than the previous one. More change will happen between now and 2050 than during all of humanity's past. Let's explore the 21st century and ride this historic wave of planetary transition with a confident open mind.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Direct Democracy in the 21st Century

New communication technology driven democratic institutions are already in their embryonic stages and will grow to co-rule many societies in parallel with the current legislatures ( that are morally and ideologically bankrupt and losing their legitimacy) 

Direct democracy enthusiasts brought us a few innovations in the 20th century such as the recall and the referendum. The use of these mechanisms is increasing through the Western world but that doesn't necessarily mean that direct democracy is increasing. Moneyed interests just found ways to utilize these mechanisms. We saw the engineers of the European Union integration use the referendum as a popular legitimacy providing rubber stamp for their top down projects. Whenever the people voted "the wrong way" such as in France, the Eurocrats saw it as a failure on their part in terms of not marketing ("explaining") the referendum offering properly enough rather than the offering being unpopular. We thus see signature gathering efforts and popular majority approval fall under the same corporate interests as everything else.

Nonetheless, even a  broken clock is right twice a day. Just as current oligarchic legislative systems in the Western world are able to occasionally deliver what the mob really wants, referendums (such as the one that will be held on Scottish independence) may genuinely create popular breakthroughs once in a while. However, for very interesting psychological reasons that predispose 80% of the population towards the status quo, these genuinely and massively popular satisfactions are even more rare and more difficult to achieve in Western oligarchies (that call themselves democratic) than in oligarchies elsewhere in the world that don't bother with the pretense. The minority of elites that seriously know what is in the people's interest and who actually want to work towards it are always outnumbered by majority of other elites who use majority of population as rubber stamp proxies. Thus, paradoxically, in the parliamentary/referenda Western world, in some ways it is more difficult to achieve macro-level political progress than under some monarchies in the later 19th century (see the relatively advanced pre-emptive welfare and safety net provisions offered in Kaiser's Germany in late 19th century). Considering the modern need to create people's approval through mass scale marketing, there is always intra-elite battle of marketing that progressive faction loses in a more spectacular way than it did in prior times.

Therefore the future of direct democracy will not be in referendums (that come about as a result of very expensive research and marketing efforts) since the people fall under the same top down informational spell as during the election season. That is not to say that the effort should be completely abandoned since the Internet currently allows the masses to massively fund not just individual candidates via small contributions (and other tricks like moneybombs) but also to fund large scale propaganda commercial campaigns. However, even if there is a more level playing field for the money versus money game, and the propaganda versus propaganda game, the ones likely to win most of the time are those who are much more experienced, connected as a block, and resourceful. I'll leave it at that.

Direct Democracy that is not a Rubber Stamp

Let's explore some directions that are increasingly possible in the 21st century (where manufacturing your own surplus electrical energy, acquiring water from air, and making objects via 3D printing down to nanoscale level are possible not to mention more sophisticated participation in governance). The focus should be on direct democratic systems that can be scaled up somehow to be capable of ruling continental federal unions. That is more imperative than ever in a consolidating technologically complex world that is beginning to resemble ant colonies.

We should also focus on expanding direct democracy not just vertically but horizontally to areas where democracy is not usually found. That primarily means the workplace. Often to vote on in a new area, the people should also own that area (which is a whole different topic for discussion but just as necessary in this century). That means anything from residential buildings, to fission reactor facilities, and to expanding upon the cliche of worker ownership of a factory/hospital/school. Worker's self management of an industrial plant is good and all but these workers should be able to run the entire transnational industrial chain. Same applies for counties, countries, and the above mentioned EU (we're watching you Brussels). Horizontal expansion of direct democracy experiments and systems is critical since it brings greater quantity of direct democratic units, greater experimentation with different methods (to see which can be scaled up better), and since quantity has a quality of its own. In a world where 1 billion people are trained to "like" something on a social network and where their liking and disliking is increasingly brought to other areas, there develops a sort of psychological diffusion that can potentially turn an increasingly proactive consumer into a citizen of the world (in a practical  and not 1960s cliche sense).

One of America's greatest political scientists, Robert Dahl, wrote 20 years ago in Democracy and its Critics that the Internet and the jury system offers an interesting way out for mass scale direct democracy. Let's dig into but one example that could be extrapolated from his work (the web was very new at the time and Dahl couldn't have imagined the level of connectedness we have achieved so far):

One example of a transitional process: The Case of New Jersey. Yes we went there.

New Jersey has a population of 8.8 million, 13 representatives and 2 senators to federal congress, 120 members in its bicameral legislature, and access to the Internet. Mr Dahl would say that a virtual polis can be created where for example, 1,000 New Jersians are randomly selected by a computer to serve as a sort of shadow government for every state representative. This means 120,000 people or 1.36% of population are selected to serve their state as either a consulting body that suggests course of action or serve as actual co-representative collectively.

Let's see how this might function.

If Billy Bob from district 3 is elected by people of district 3 to serve in state assembly, then 1,000 random people from district 3 are notified that they are now part of a virtual district 3 polis where after deliberating for a year they can vote on what course of action Billy Bob should take. Collectively the wisdom of 1,000 individuals from all walks of life make this body as smart, coherent, and authoritative as Billy (since we're being metric for simplicity, lets call this mass of 1,000 individuals a kilopop).

Now, being in this virtual polis isn't a full time job and doesn't require too much energy (although some mild monetary and/or honorary compensation for participating for that year can be found, and no! you can't trade or sell your position to Coca Cola. More on the impossibility to bribe everybody later).

The polis can either vote thumbs up or down on various proposals in the state assembly via secure Internet connection as proposals come up or there can be certain days when proposals accumulate such as every Sunday or the first Sunday of every month. There of course can be online forums where the kilopop can debate and argue among each other. This way, the state of New Jersey has 120 popular assemblies (polises, councils, people's cogresses, however you want to call them) for each of their 120 state reps AS WELL as 15 randomly selected assemblies for each of the 13 representatives and 2 senators that New Jersians send to the federal congress.

The assemblies can vary in size of course so perhaps a state senator gets, 5,000-10,000 to shadow him while a senator to US senate gets 100,000 New Jersians to shadow him or her. There is enough people for all, no worries. Then, when the popular 1,000 or 5,000, or 10,000, or 100,000 person assembly votes an an issue one way and the assemblyman, or representative, or senator, votes an this issue another way, he can   rapidly and easily be shamed into losing the next election as having gone against the will of the people from his or her locality. Of course the politicians elected will be acutely aware of how the virtual polis is leaning on a day by day basis so the votes made via the old system are already preemptively influenced. 1,000 people have many links between them and the wider community and a lot of influential members in places one may not expect. A whole range of measures and pressures could collectively be found to deal with completely bought politicians who always vote "the wrong way" (the shoe is on the other foot now!).

Polling is done with sufficiently representative samples and these assemblies will definitely be mathematically representative of different parts of New Jersey. Mundane technicalities of encrypting computer systems to do genuinely random jury type selection, whether you had to born in district 3 or lived there for a number of years, etc can be worked out rapidly. The assemblies are not parliaments with a ruling entrenched clique and since the people who participated in them will not be able to after a year, corruption can't take hold. If, after certain amount of time, due to population of the state, one is called up again it will be for a different virtual polis altogether. In ancient Athens, almost every citizen sat on a temporary committee of some sort (usually for a year) and was never to sit on it again. This constant rotational system is easier than ever to implement online with a large population that has the a rather short attention span as of late. Lots of retired people will feel a renewed sense of importance as well as people typically excluded from public life.

Taking a step back and looking at the entire population of United States (or France or Germany), you see that there are now millions of individuals engaged in civic duty with their sense of civic duty and education rising all the time. On a long enough timeline after testing it out (or short timeline if you're less conservative), you can have the virtual assemblies evolve from consulting bodies into co-legislative (being able to veto or override the assemblyman with sufficient votes or vote requiring both assemblyman AND the virtual polis tracking him to vote the same way). Co-legislative function of course paves way towards replacement of the system constructed by 18th century aristocrats.

Software systems can make this process as cartoony, simple, and pleasing to the eyes as facebook with big red reminders popping up concerning something. And there is no need to worry about the elderly people selected without Internet access (they can vote via TV that is all digital now) or busy bodies who monopolize the forum discussions due to not having any lives. Such problems pale in comparison to the collective wisdom of 1,000-100,000 individuals producing a decision (maybe even 500,000 person polises can be assembled in times of national emergencies that could deliberate for much shorter amount of time).

Although of course it is difficult for corporations to bribe so many millions of people, we are still left with a number of unanswered questions. The Virtual Polis system though is a bit better at corruption fighting than some other proposals that just scale up existing dysfunctional systems (such as proposals to expand federal congress to 30,000 bought off stooges rather than 435 corporate monkeys currently). Whereas the latter proposal decreases class size so to speak, the former brings additional teachers into the class to teach and watch each other.

Surely there is more?

Yes dear reader, there is more but this is turning into a multi-part article. Next we will look at actual physical assemblies consisting of roughly 10,000 people living in a locality (even if they are inside a city of 5 million). These assemblies then select a number from among themselves (say, 10) to participate in a higher Assembly #2 that can be either 1,000 or 10,000 reps (see how we're keeping it metric?). In this we can have a bottom up process where direct democracy creates a super assembly that covers anywhere from a million (megapop) to 10 million people without a middleman. Of course this would all be lubricated by the Internet and integrated with a virtual polis system simultaneously or in parallel if need be. There are a number of countries in the world that have experimented with rather advanced political systems in the last 30 years.

But more on that later.

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1 comment:

  1. So long has passed, I've forgotten what name was given to the concept of a partially direct democracy. It's easiest to imagine if you picture the structure of government exactly as it exists today. The big difference lies in the ability to vote on as many (up to 100%) issues that fall within your realm.

    What I found most interesting is how it could actually work to empower the individual while accommodating a spectrum of voter types from not interested to nit-picker.

    A restructuring of, or at least re-categorization of the issues would be required. So, funding bills would be split from the issues, etc. Monetary issues, geopolitical issues, domestic, human rights, environmental would all be their own groups. Within each would be sub-categories where it made sense. One group that comes to mind (just off the top of my head) is the environment, which would likely contain sub-categories like animal rights, oil and energy production, yada yada.

    So, each individual may elect to vote on the issues they wish to, and with much greater granularity. This is only half of the potential though, as a change to the structure of government would really go hand-in-hand with this new voting structure.

    Now, picture an issues card with each of the issues color-coded with their related categories neatly diagrammed. Some overlapping, but mostly in vertical columns by issue. If you were getting your feet wet with the landscape of legislators/lawmakers (yuck), you could elect to vote specifically for everything within a category. A perfect example of how, over time one could imagine relinquishing voting for an entire category to a trusted politician (dang, yuck again) can be imagined with Ron Paul and economic issues.

    Alright, it's basically just like an office pool. sounds feasible to me. Of course, this wouldn't work in a police state like America at current. The current PTB are pretty obviously oposed to anything along these lines. They continue to argue, even recently that online voting is beyond discussion as it's vulnerable to fraud and hacking. Right! Banks can make billion dollar trades almost nightly and can steal/foreclose on your home even without owning it but they're concerned about the integrity of online voting.

    In any case, what you have introduced and what I've attempted to describe above is coming eventually. How you've shown this direct participation implemented in the marketplace is interesting, yet I detect a cautionary tone. That's probably the right attitude considering the piracy plaguing business today, but I think it will work in some ways there too.